Median price country's second-highest

It may come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to hunt down an apartment in the Washington area, but rent here is high -- and getting higher.

Median gross rent -- costs for all rentals including utilities -- rose from $1,365 a month in 2009 to $1,391 a month in 2011 in the Washington region, a bigger increase than in any of the other 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country, according to census data released Tuesday. Washington is one of only 11 regions on the list where rent rose over that period.

The jump means that Washington has the second-highest median rent on the list, behind only San Jose, Calif., where rent fell from $1,470 in 2009 to $1,460 in 2011.

Too high
  Median rent, 2009 Median rent, 2011
San Jose metro area $1,470 $1,460
D.C. metro area $1,365 $1,391
San Francisco metro area $1,362 $1,345
San Diego metro area $1,281 $1,237
Los Angeles metro area $1,244 $1,214
New York metro area $1,172 $1,187
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Median rent in traditionally expensive markets like New York and San Francisco remains high -- $1,187 and $1,345 respectively -- but experts say D.C.'s high education levels and more robust economy make it a more attractive landing spot, driving up rental prices.

"That's a reflection of a continued interest in the Washington metropolitan area," said Peter Tatian, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. "Lots of younger [people] in particular are coming here for work, and they're being attracted by the different amenities and opportunities in this region."

Debbie Kaplan, chief operating officer of apartment search service Urban Igloo, said young professionals and those getting their first job out of college are frequent customers. For those coming in from out of town, she said, the high rents and scarce listings can be a shock.

"We've had people cry when they signed a lease in front of us because they were so relieved and so overwhelmed by the process," Kaplan said. "We have people call and say they want to live in a one-bedroom, dog-friendly apartment in Dupont Circle with a washer/dryer for $1,400."

At Archstone Dupont Circle apartments, one-bedroom units start at more than $2,500. At Highland Park apartments in Columbia Heights, where brand-new units are marketed toward young professionals, one-bedrooms start at $2,000.

Nikita Jeswani, who moved to D.C. from Philadelphia after graduating from college in June, said she first moved to a newer building a few blocks from Nationals Park. She moved again last weekend to a more affordable apartment in Pentagon City.

"My original building was one of those new high rises with the rooftop pool and the game room. At the end of the day, I don't think those things are that necessary," Jeswani said. "My new building doesn't have any fancy amenities, but it's cheaper rent and a bigger apartment."

Many in the region, however, don't have to be as concerned about their housing costs. Despite the high costs, less than 40 percent of residents spend more than 35 percent of their income on rent, according to census data.

"The economy here is either stable or better than a lot of other parts of the country," said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. He added that the number of government and government-reliant jobs kept salaries relatively high, even through the recession.

For those at lower income levels, the rising rents can make it even more difficult to live in the District or some of the inner-ring suburbs.

"If you're not lucky enough to be in some kind of affordable housing, then you may be moving to somewhere further out in the region where the housing costs tend to be lower," Tatian said. "With the additional apartments that are being built, it could relieve some of the pressure and cause some of the rents to come down a little bit."